Empower Gifted Learners to Advocate for Themselves

By Deb Douglas, author of The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the Four Essential Steps to Success (Grades 5–12)

Empower Gifted Learners to Advocate for ThemselvesAs the days of summer passed, eleven-year-old Carmen grew more and more anxious about the start of another school year.

Sixth grade hadn’t been all she’d hoped it would be, and she was pretty sure that seventh grade would be more of the same. Her biggest worry was language arts. It wasn’t that Carmen didn’t like reading and writing—in fact, she loved them and excelled at both. She was reading Good Night Moon aloud at age two and The Giving Tree at three. By the time she was six, she had consumed the Little House series and composed a short opera about her dog, Daisy. On the final day of elementary school, she gave copies of her self-published poetry book to her classmates. She couldn’t wait for middle school and “real” language arts classes.

But her first year in middle school was a disappointment. Even with individual goals in reading and writing workshops, Carmen never felt challenged. There was no one else who wanted to discuss Antigone or Jane Eyre. No other student understood the nuance of her writing or saw the humor in her poetry. And from what she saw around her each day, Carmen knew that seventh grade wasn’t going to be much better.

No More Same Old, Same Old
For many gifted kids like Carmen, getting ready for the new school year means more than buying a new backpack. It is a time to reflect on the past and plan for the future. To find ways to make the coming year even better than the one before.

But not all students understand that they have a right to learn something new every day, to work hard, and to make school what they want it to be. And many don’t know where to begin to make changes. That’s where we, as parents and educators, can make a difference. We can ask, listen, and act. When we ask the right questions, listen perceptively, and act together with our children, they can self-advocate to create the educational options they crave.

Ask
The first step is simply talking with our children about their formal education. Finding the right time to begin a dialogue may not always be easy, but it doesn’t have to be a formal strategy meeting. Keep it casual using those in-between moments like car time, meals, or star-gazing on a clear summer night.

Sometimes just a simple question can get the ball rolling: “I know school isn’t always exactly what you’d like it to be. Is there anything about last year that you would change?” Other leading questions include:

  • What things do you really like about school?
  • What things are you really good at?
  • What do you struggle with? Why?
  • What bugs you? What frustrates you?
  • What needs improvement?

Listen
This part can be tough. It’s fairly common for us to react quickly to our children’s first responses rather than letting them expand on their thoughts. In order to really listen, we should refrain from

  • rushing to explain why things are the way they are
  • denying their feelings
  • minimizing their concerns
  • assessing their strengths and weaknesses as we see them
  • providing our own answers or solutions

Instead we can reassure children that there are no right or wrong answers. We want their straight, heartfelt, unfiltered responses. We also can ask follow-up questions that help children dig deeper, reflect openly, and ponder more critically.

Act
After asking and listening, it’s time to encourage our children to take actions that will change their gripes and frustrations into great possibilities. We can help them select a goal and create an action plan to achieve it. Most gifted students’ goals fall into one of four categories:

  • find a greater challenge
  • explore an interest
  • spend more time with like-ability peers
  • adjust school or home to accommodate personal needs

The steps that Carmen took below are a good example of how other gifted learners could begin self-advocating.

Carmen’s Self-Advocacy Strategy
After reflecting on the last school year, Carmen chose one thing she wanted to change: “I’d like a greater challenge in my language arts classes.” To get there, she used the classic problem-solving process below (her comments are in italics). Her parents served as guides on the side, helping her gather information and providing feedback at each stage.

  1. Define the Problem.
    The book choices are always too easy, and with all the required writing for test preparation, we never got to do creative writing at all last year. I’m afraid 7th and 8th grade are going to be the same.
  2. Identify Alternative Solutions.
    1. I could read different books than the rest of the class and write essays about them.
    2. I could find other kids who want to read more difficult books, and we could work together.
    3. I could do an online advanced English class instead of 7th grade language arts.
    4. I could skip 7th and 8th grade language arts and take a literature class at the high school.
  3. Evaluate and Choose an Alternative.
    1. If I did the first alternative, I’d be reading alone at my own pace, but I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to about the books.
    2. Other kids might not be as motivated as I am or want to read the same books.
    3. An online class could be self-paced, but I’d rather discuss things face-to-face.
    4. The high school classes sound really interesting, but I don’t know how to get permission.

After thinking about this seriously and discussing it with my parents, I’ve decided that I want to skip 7th- and 8th-grade language arts and take the American literature class at the high school.

4. Implement the Decision

Carmen devised the following step-by-step plan:

  1. Get support from last year’s teacher.
  2. Explain my plan to my principal and my counselor.
  3. Get permission to take a high school class.
  4. Meet with the high school teacher to show that I’m motivated and can do the work.

5. Monitor and Control Decision Outcomes

Carmen asked for help from several people.

  • My parents can let me know if I’m spending too much time on American lit and not enough on my other classes.
  • My high school teacher can let me know how I’m doing, especially in the first few weeks.
  • My counselor can help me develop a long-term plan for the coming years.

With the assistance of her parents and other caring adults, Carmen changed her route through the educational system and found the challenges she wanted.

Ask. Listen. Act . . . And Then Celebrate
The ongoing support of parents and other adults is key to gifted students’ self-advocacy. We can help students sort through the issues, provide a sympathetic ear, encourage them when the going gets rough, and celebrate their successes. When future needs arise, our children will be able to choose new goals and begin the process again and again, each time taking on more and more responsibility.

Self-advocacy is a skill that will serve them well—in school, in college, in work, and in life.

Deb Douglas Deb Douglas consults and advocates for gifted students, specializing in workshops that help students take charge of their education. She is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences, and her original research on empowering gifted students to self-advocate has been published in The Roeper Review and Parenting for High Potential. Previously, she was the gifted education coordinator for the Manitowoc Public School District and president of the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Follow Deb on Twitter: @debdouglas52

Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted LearnersDeb Douglas is the author of The Power of Self-Advocacy for Gifted Learners: Teaching the Four Essential Steps to Success (Grades 5–12)


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